A very good read, highlighting the importance of developing decision-making in your players, and the relationship between skills and decision-making.


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January 27, 2014 · 9:04 am

How to turn your volunteers into coaches

An idea started forming in my head last week whilst I was attending a coaching conference: “Is the idea of coach recruitment a myth?

Every coaching conference you attend touches on the idea of coach recruitment. What normally happens is regurgitated ideas around how to get more coaches get thrown around before everyone leaves, only to return the following year to discuss the same issues. It occurs to me that this could be a whole world of wasted energy. In my experience, schools/clubs/RSO’s that need to find a coach will do so (In fact, Sport NZ agrees. From their 2007 Volunteer research “there does not appear to be an insufficient numbers of people volunteering. It is estimated that 500,000 people work unpaid as sports volunteers”). The methods they use to find a coach may be less than ideal (persuasion, payment, blackmail, threatening to pull the team etc), but 9 times out of 10 they do find a coach. What should be discussed more frequently at club meetings and coaching conferences around the country is “how the school/club/RSO now treats this coach”. This is an area where schools/clubs/RSO’s need to do more work on how they support this (often reluctant) coach to make sure they return next season?

In 2007 SPARC (now Sport NZ) conducted significant research into volunteering, and why people volunteer their time in sport. Those that were frustrated or became disengaged with their volunteering experience listed the following reasons for this state of mind:

  • no comprehensive instructions
  • a lack of organised introduction/induction
  • a lack of written guidelines on the role
  • no clear communication to them

An example of a coach development day. Development is another key way in which you can retain your coaches..
An example of a coach development day. Development is another key way in which you can retain your coaches

So what can schools, clubs and RSO’s do to ensure they are supporting their volunteers?

  1. A lack of written guidelines on the role/No comprehensive instructions

There is nothing more frustrating than being asked to perform a task when you have little or no idea on how to do that. From a volunteer’s perspective, if you have been roped into coaching at the last minute and turn up to take the team with no idea of exactly how to coach, your impression of volunteering is not going be positive.

A job description, or roles and responsibilities document outlining what is expected of a volunteer is an easy win for any sporting organisation. This document should provide volunteers with a clear understanding of what is expected, and a guide of how to perform their role.

2. Have an organised induction process

An induction process does not have to be extensive, expensive or time consuming. An induction process can take place in a variety of ways:

  • An evening induction where you get all your volunteers in and introduce them to the club or school, go over your philosophy, code of conducts, values etc. You can use this to outline the key social dates through the season. A good idea to show volunteers they are valued is to put on some food and/or beverages for them at the event.
  • Create an induction pack including all the key information for the season. This can be handed out at a pre season meeting. This meeting may be when the volunteers sign up or could be any other time where you may have contact with them prior to them starting their role. This induction pack can include all the things listed in the previous point, as well as team draw, contact details for the club, a list of coach development opportunities, significant dates for the season, end of season review template and anything else that is of importance to your organisation.

If you have any other ways or ideas that you use to induct your volunteers please let me know by commenting on this blog below.

By having an organised induction process, coaches will begin to see how they fit into the whole organisation. It will also highlight to them they are not alone and there are others in the same situation as them.

3. No clear communication with them

One sure fire way to ensure people become frustrated with you is by not communicating with them (as I’m sure all of us have experienced in more than one situation). A good idea to change this is when you are communicating with your volunteers for the first time to  schedule a time to contact them. If you have their training times you can catch up with them before or after their training as well as casting an eye over how they are going coaching their team.  Another idea could be to schedule 2 phone calls during the season for each coach if you can’t attend their trainings.

Another idea I recommend is holding an end of season review with your coaches. This is a chance for you to ask them how the season went, the positives and the negatives. Ask them what your organisation could have done better to support them, what did they like about coaching at your organisation etc. This is your chance to find out what is working and what isn’t. With all this in mind, the key to communicating with your coaches is this: You need to show you are taking their feedback on board. If a coach highlights an issue, for example they suggest there should be a sign-in/sign-out sheet for equipment used by all teams, and next season when they return there isn’t one in place then the validity of that communication is in jeopardy.

These ideas are designed to get you thinking on how you can start the process of turning your volunteers into coaches. By implementing some (or all ideally) of these ideas you will start to retain more of your coaches, and you can then start to develop them into becoming better coaches, rather than nervous, unconfident volunteers.

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Why can’t we all just get along?

“The best thing about being involved in the Coach Accelerate Project is having the opportunity to learn from coaches of other sports”.

This was a quote from Steve Hansen, the current All Black coach, speaking about being involved in the Sport NZ Coach Accelerate Project. I had the chance a few months ago to sit down and listen to Alex McKenzie speak about this project and while the whole project sounds exceptional, this one idea stood out for me.

That is a pretty powerful statement. Arguably the highest profile coach in this country stating that he can AND HAS learnt from coaches in other sports. If he can acknowledge he’s learnt from coaches in other sports, why can’t coaches at levels below high performance do similar?

But what is there to learn from coaches from other ‘rival’ codes? The majority of skills that a rugby coach needs to be effective are the same as a football, squash, triathlon, water polo, cricket, sailing coach and you can add any other sport out there. This is backed up by numerous coaches’ philosophies. For example, Ernie Merrick’s (current Wellington Phoenix coach) philosophy is “I don’t coach players, I coach people”. Wayne Smith and the All Blacks philosophy that guided them to the World Cup victory two years ago was “Better people make better All Blacks”. If both these coaches highlight that they are first and foremost coaches of people there must be some similarities in the required skills.

Generic skills that all coaches need to develop are (but not limited to):

  • Communication
  • Questioning
  • Feedback
  • Team management
  • Conflict management
  • Skill acquisition
  • Leadership
  • Creating and maintaining a strong team culture
  • Planning
  • Goal setting
  • Motivation

If these are just a few of the hundreds of skills that coaches need to develop to become an effective coach, coach educators have a tough job on their hands. How can you develop your coaches to be skilled in the list above coupled with the specific tactical and technical requirements of your sport to become great coaches?

Steve Hanson’s comment could hold the key. Why don’t we actively encourage our coaches to network with other coaches, regardless of what sport they coach? I know some of the best conversations I have had regarding coaching have come from coaches that aren’t involved in the same sport I am.

Picture this . . .  A Monday night at a local sports club. Inside is a group of coaches, 1 from Rugby, 1 from Squash, 1 from the local primary school who coaches a miniball team, 2 from Netball and 2 swimming coaches from the community swimming pool. The theme for the night is engaging athletes in a training session. Each coach is going to have their own experiences and techniques to call on when the discussion is taking place so there will be 7 different ideas those coaches can take away and try if they like.

Another strategy that can be used to encourage the sharing of ideas is coach mentoring or coach buddies. Having another coach that works with you to give you feedback and advice is a powerful learning tool (see the list on this link to see all the high performance coaches that have used a mentor). Again though, the opportunity to align with a coach from another coach will give you a completely different perspective on coaching. Those thoughts can prove invaluable.

My challenges to you whether you are a coach or a coach educator is make a link with other coaches from other codes to enhance your own practice. Whether it is through some sort of networking club, a coach mentor or your own idea see what you can learn from them as you will be pleasantly surprised. I would love to hear from you if you do take up this challenge, or if you already are learning from other coaches regardless of their code.

Coincidently, Steve Hansen is currently a mentor for Dayle Cheatley, the New Zealand track cycling team coach for the 2012 London Olympics. If it is working at high performance level there is no reason this cannot be transposed to community coaches.

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Talent I.D. or talent development part 3 – creating athletes who understand

This is the third blog in a series looking at talent ID and development. The first blog I set the scene around Talent ID. The second I detailed what I believe should be the number one priority of every Talent ID programme and academy in New Zealand: developing the growth mindset in athletes. (to see the example scenario used to set the scene, read blog 1 Talent I.D. – Are we getting it right? and 2 Talent I.D. – The Growth Mindset). This blog will focus on the reasons why I believe academies/talent ID programmes need to spend more time creating players who understand the game and their performance within it.

Athletes and coaches spend hours perfecting technical and tactical skills. It’s obvious to see why, as these skills are vital to a quality performance. You need to be able to pass, catch, tackle, sprint, shoot, hit to be successful in your chosen sport. In my mind, these skills are only being coached in halves. Skills have two parts; the first is decision-making and the second is how you execute the skill based on the decision. Because of this, it is my belief that decision-making is the most common skill in all of sport.

Whether an athlete is playing professional or amateur sport, team or individual sport, they are required to make frequent decisions throughout their performance because they are continually performing skills. You can’t have decision-making without execution and vice versa. Yet many coaches, in training, isolate the execution from the decision. For example, a rugby coach may coach a player to tackle by using a tackle bag or a player standing still, even though this never happens in a game of rugby. To make a tackle in rugby, a player needs to consider, at the very least, field position, how fast the attacker is running, how they are holding the ball, if they have another defender close to them and when to time their tackle on the attacker. To me, that is coaching a technique rather than a skill.

Wayne Goldsmith, an international coaching expert, defines skill as “the ability to perform a sporting skill consistently well at speed, under fatigue and pressure conditions in a competition environment”. A skill is coached when the decision on when, why, and how to execute that technique is coached, as well as the what. By using a tackle bag, this ‘skill’ isn’t being practised, only the execution of the technique. There is no thought to placing the athletes under pressure, or in a competitive environment which replicates what these athletes will face in their competitive games.

I have coached a number of representative age grade sides over the last three years and have had the privilege to coach some very promising players. These players have been through or are part of academies of some description. For my liking though, the majority of these players could have a better understanding of two skills: decision making and game understanding. This scenario is backwards. These players were the best of their age group in their region; they obviously have shown good technique and skills. The next step should be to introduce them to decision-making and game understanding. My guess is that in these academies they were given more of the same: isolated technique development, physical training and being taught to conform to a tactical understanding created by their coaches, rather than having an overall understanding of the game so they can fit in to any game plan used.

The reason for this, as Nick Grantham and Wayne Goldsmith explain, is that this approach often brings immediate success, and it is easy to use. These types of trainings and practices are more appealing to many coaches and athletes. The problems with this form of coaching begin when we start to look at long-term improvements, particularly when athletes are faced with challenging conditions. Long-term performance declines, especially when difficult and stressful conditions are encountered (see figure 1 at http://nickgrantham.com/decision-training/).

Brian McCormick travelled with a Basketball academy in the US and has seen a similar problem. He believes the common response when obviously talented players struggle in game environments is “the blame naturally turns to athleticism: if the players were quicker or bigger or stronger, then they would be able to utilise their skills better”. However, he argues that this is down to a different problem: their techniques are not transferring to a game environment. Going back to the tackle bag example above, these static or ‘straight line drills’ do not prepare players to anticipate and read defenders, change directions and adapt to what they see unfolding in front of them. So when these techniques are put under pressure, they fall apart. As a coach, I’m sure you have seen numerous examples of this occur: a player who has great technique in isolated situations that just can’t reproduce skilled performances under pressure.

It is easy to fall into the trap of producing athletes and players who are great at set plays and running ‘patterns’ and ‘drills’ but who can’t deliver where it counts. I’m sure all coaches would want their players to take a gap, or run into a hole even if it ‘breaks’ or goes against the play that has been communicated. However, I would question how many athletes who have been through academies have been encouraged to take those opportunities. These athletes seem to lack the confidence or ability to make those positive decisions.

So how can academies and high performance groups – and, for that matter, any coach – improve the transfer of skill from training to games? Firstly, to quote Bo Hansen, former Olympic Gold medallist, “Like all skills, decision making takes time to develop”.

Academies need to place decision-making at the forefront of their programmes to start the development of decision-making in their prospective athletes as early as possible. Manchester United’s academy based at Carrington is one high profile example that has changed their structure to enhance the game understanding and skill execution of their players. They only play 4 v 4 games up to under 11, rather than the 8 v 8 imposed by the Premier League, so their players get more opportunities to make decisions with the ball at their feet in a real game situation. The beauty of this small-sided games approach is the players are frequently practising these skills (because they are practising the execution of a technique based on a decision they make) in the context of a game, so there will be less of an issue for players to transfer these skills into bigger games.

The ultimate goal of academies is to take athletes that have potential and hone that potential to give that athlete the best chance of making it to the next level. What an athlete needs to be successful at that next level is an extensive list, but fundamental to that list is the ability to make decisions. This is the most common skill in all of sport and needs to be practiced if an athlete is going to become better at it. Decision making is also the first part of a skill, with the second part the execution of that skill. Athletes need to develop decision-making in conjunction with execution, so the ‘how’ and ‘when’ of that skill is understood as well as the ‘what’. The best way to do this is to place the athletes in situations that allow them to do this. This means no more isolated drills (like static tackling of a tackle bag), but more games and activities that are applicable to the sport, that force athletes to make a decision and then execute. If more academies, high performance groups, even community coaches start to address this issue we will soon start to see an even higher number of athletes being produced that could go on to become high performance.

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Talent I.D. or talent development part 2 – The growth mindset

Does this sound familiar? All of you will have heard or been a part of the Talent I.D. process and the following example will not be new to you.

A leader within an NSO, RSO, Club or Secondary School starts to consider how to get more talent into their environment. They start with the mentality of “we need to have a talent pipeline that identifies talent at the ages of 12, 13, and 14 and place them into formal structures for their development”. This ultimately creates a talent ID/academy.

A 14 year old ‘gifted’ athlete then gets invited to be part of an “academy” at their school. One of the ”benefits” of being involved with this high performance group is they get to miss out on one period a week of maths, english or science in order to free up time to undertake additional work on technical skill development for their sport. They are part of this academy for the next 3 years and by the time they leave school at the end of year 13 they have received a significant amount of development for their chosen sport.

This is the second blog in a series looking at this scenario, and how I believe it is flawed on a number of levels. After setting the scene around Talent ID in the first blog, this blog will go into what I believe should be the number one priority of every Talent ID programme and academy in New Zealand, developing the growth mindset in athletes.

Reading through articles about Olympic athletes, world champions and other elite performers highlights the importance of developing a growth mind-set. A growth mind-set is defined by Carol Dweck as:

“A belief that people’s most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work, ‘smarts’ and ‘talent’ are just the starting point.”

Dweck then goes on you state, “This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment”.

This is backed up by comments from Michael Jordan, “If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it”; Magic Johnson, “Talent is never enough. With a few exceptions the best players are the hardest workers”; Billie Jean King, “for me, losing a tennis match isn’t failure, its research” plus many, many more.

Taking these quotes from exceptional sports people into account, learning from mistakes and losses, resilience, becoming a student of the game, developing quality habits and work ethic are all vital skills that need to be developed in our potential elite sports people.

It is clear some programmes and people develop these skills in athletes, but the majority of academies/talent ID programmes in New Zealand do not include the growth mind-set in their ‘curriculum’. Recently I attended a training camp for a regional development group of athletes, and the first thing they did was test these athletes on their physical prowess; their speed, endurance and strength. They then went through and touched a little bit on mental skills, nutrition and strength training. Very little was said to the players regarding the challenges they will face as they continue progressing through the pathway to become elite sports people, what attitude will benefit them most in their sporting careers and what ‘non-physical’ attributes the players would be judged on.

This is where I believe talent ID programmes are letting down the athletes they are supposed to be developing. It’s almost like these athletes are being picked because they have potential, but only one part of them is being developed to reach that potential. In every person (and therefore athlete) there are physical characteristics, but also social characteristics, emotional characteristics, spiritual characteristics, mental characteristics that need to be developed in order to be the best they can be.

A research article out of Ghent University in Belgium by Roel Vaeyans has found a similar issue. His findings suggest the majority of researchers still adopt a 1-dimensional approach or concentrate on a combination of physical and physiological measures when looking at talent ID. Although such models may have some success in sports where the majority of variance in performance may be accounted for by a relatively small number of characteristics (e.g.bodybuilding or rowing), there predictive value has proven problematic in the majority of fast ball sports and team ball games. The sooner young athletes, parents of young athletes and coaches of young athletes are aware of this, the better.

Could talent ID or academy programmes place more of an emphasis on putting athletes into challenging scenarios to start the development of resilience? Each sport will know the best way to do this but one easy way I can see is to allow players to make mistakes in trainings AND games to encourage them to review why mistakes happened, and how it could be prevented the next time they perform. Going back to Michael Jordan, the following quote demonstrates why this is so important:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

This quote is the growth mind-set in action. Mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn and grow, to become better. They aren’t viewed as barriers, or confirmation of a lack of talent.

High level sport has a mix of physical skills, technical knowledge, tactical understanding, emotional control, self-awareness. It is also a rollercoaster of emotion, riding the big highs with equally massive lows, whether winning championships, losing games, getting selected for higher honours, getting dropped, injuries. The ability to move through all this is greatly enhanced if you have what is termed a ‘growth’ mind-set. So while it’s great that these talent id programmes are developing the physical and technical skills of these athletes, they are only preparing one part of these players. To take these athletes to the next level, start to develop a growth mind-set in all of them.

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Talent I.D. or talent development part 1 – Are we getting it right?

Does this sound familiar? All of you will have heard or been a part of the Talent I.D. process and the following example will not be new to you.

A leader within an NSO, RSO, Club or Secondary School starts to consider how to get more talent into their environment. They start with the mentality of “we need to have a talent pipeline that identifies talent at the ages of 12, 13, and 14 and place them into formal structures for their development”. This ultimately creates a talent ID/academy.

A 14 year old ‘gifted’ athlete then gets invited to be part of an “academy” at their school. One of the ”benefits” of being involved with this high performance group is they get to miss out on one period a week of maths, english or science in order to free up time to undertake additional work on technical skill development for their sport. They are part of this academy for the next 3 years and by the time they leave school at the end of year 13 they have received a significant amount of development for their chosen sport.

Over the next month or so I will explore this scenario, in the coaches corner blog and highlight the reasons why I believe it is flawed on a number of levels. I will use the term academy and TID programme interchangebly.

The first blog will focus on the issue of talent identification (TID) within these academies and high performance groups. The second and third will then look at what Talent ID/academies could do more of to develop better all-round athletes; developing the growth mindset in these athletes and developing awareness and game understanding in these athletes.

The first issue with talent ID programmes/academies is there is a lack of understanding around the purpose of academies. It could be argued the majority of academies are put together for player development, when in reality they are there to create short term success for a certain team, whether it be a school 1st XI, representative side etc. This means there is a lack of alignment and congruence around the communicated goals of the academy and their real objectives.

Recently I read a South African study that measured the number of Rugby Union players who progressed through their development pathway. South Africa Rugby Union’s pathway includes their national U13 tournament, the national U16 tournament and lastly the national U18 tournament. The results of the study found that in 2005, 349 players participated in the U13 tournament. From that group only 110 went on to play at the 2006-2008 U16 tournaments and the number dropped again to only 84 players who participated at the 2008 and 2009 U18 Tournaments.

69% of the original players didn’t represent their province at U16 level and 74% of players didn’t represent their province at U18 level. I would guess that this percentage wouldn’t be that dissimilar across a number of sports in New Zealand. If the under 13, 16, and 18 programmes are supposed to be preparing South African Rugby Players for future international performance, it is quite clear this is not happening.

So where does that leave coaches and selectors? Based on these figures (for more examples of similar findings on other sports click on the following links: Goldmine effectThe flaws of football academiesTalent identification, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing), we as a sporting structure are not very good at identifying talent at a young age.

I believe one of the reasons we struggle to identify talent is because the entire process and methology around TID is messy. It is not straightforward or easy to do and the sooner we understand this, the better we will be. A recent editorial from Middle Tennessee State University stated that ‘The prediction of long term success (in early adolescents) is extremely difficult and successful adult athletes are not necessarily the ones who performed best in youth competitions’.

Think about your sport and every skill or action that takes place in it. No doubt your list would contain areas like strength (pushing or pulling an object for example), speed (in one direction or multi-directional), decision-making, communication, passing, catching, defending, flexibility, game awareness, running, jumping, hopping etc. That list is probably only the tip of the iceberg, and that’s not even taking into account factors like athlete’s personalities, motivations, values, beliefs and backgrounds. Taking into account all these factors, to then look at a 14 year old and say based on x, y, z he needs to be in our high performance group because he could potentially be a star is a very big ask.

Another study, this time out of the US from Indiana University on TID stated “athletes should not be excluded or identified based solely upon one attribute, such as height. Abbott and Collins maintained that other factors like speed and agility may compensate for a weakness. Further, these researchers found that key psychological behaviours such as motivation and learning strategies are essential to the talent development process both in sport and other performance areas”. However, it could be argued that this is exactly what is happening in talent ID/academies around New Zealand. Athletes are selected because they are the tallest, the strongest, the fatest etc. Players aren’t picked because of their work ethic, their motivation to improve and develop or their ability to learn. Consequently, it could be argued that academies are actually talent exclusion programmes if they are selecting athletes based on one set of attributes.

It takes a significant number of skills and competencies to become a quality elite athlete and all aspects need to be taken into consideration before tagging an athlete as gifted. I don’t know whether we will ever be able to truly identify potential talent and all that comes under that umbrella, but we can start to understand why 74% of U13 Rugby players don’t transfer through to U18 Rugby let alone into elite adult sport.

Going back to the scenario at the top of the page, it is highly unlikely the 14 year old selected to the high performance group will be successful in playing elite sport. Of more concern is if the majority of sports are picking their players from these types of groups (academies, talent ID groups etc) how many players are missing out on selection because they do not fit that early model of a “good” player or athlete. As we’ve seen there are a number of reasons why players at a younger age may not fit the bill regarding performance in their sport. The South African Rugby study alluded to an alternative interpretation, that the U13 players had characteristics associated with success in rugby, but these characteristics changed as the players got older, so as the characteristics changed so too did the players getting picked.

In summary, these types of academies popping up around New Zealand need to be clear around what their purpose is. If it is to transfer more talented adolescent athletes through to high performance sport then:

a)      They need to understand what it takes to compete at a high performance level. This goes back to the earlier point which said it takes a significant number of skills and competencies to become an elite athlete. Academies need to be developing the physical and technical/tactical capabilities in their athletes, as well as cognitive skills like resilience, decision making, creating a growth mindset and emotional/social skills like self-awareness, emotional control, how to deal with pressure, how to deal with media plus a number of others. Look at how many high profile sport protége’s in sport around the world struggle when they hit the ‘big time’, because they haven’t received the right kind of training; and

b)      They need to be honest with the athletes they are picking on what it takes to be a high performance athlete, and how likely it is that they will transfer through to a high performance environment. Too often I think players in New Zealand are told they are the next best thing when they make a regional academy, when in the wider scheme of things a regional academy in New Zealand is few rungs below quality international high performance sport. Greater honesty with the athletes in these academies/high performance groups should start to create higher standards of training as these athletes seek to be the best they can be.

In the next coaches corner blog, I will discuss in more detail one of the vital skills I believe young athletes need to develop, developing a growth mindset, and why this skill should be the foundation element of every school, club, RSO and NSO Talent ID/academy.

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